Read the short story Aunty, by Bhuwaneshwar

ByBhuwaneshwar; translated by Saudamini Deo
Jun 09, 2022 04:13 PM IST

One sister dies, another is reborn. A little boy is left behind. How many times will the tale be repeated? A short story from the collection Wolves and Other Stories.

In the course of human life, a stage arrives when even change is conquered. When the rise and fall of our life doesn’t mean anything to us, and neither does it interest others. When we live only to remain alive, and death arrives yet doesn’t.


Bibbo was at that stage of her life. The neighbours had always known her as an old woman, as if she’d originated old in the womb of eternity and turned immortal for a never-ending, unthinkable period. So as to not hurt her, young women would pretend to believe her imaginary stories. It was a matter of speculation whether she had anyone in this vast world. Most people believed that she was as alone as the creator of the cosmos. But she too had been a young woman once, even her eyes had once held nectar and poison. Even the withered tree facing the mercy of the storm had once cleaved through the earth’s heart, swayed during spring and lived the solitary life of early winter. But Bibbo herself had forgotten all that. When we erase our innumerable sad memories, our happy memories are erased as well. But, what she had not forgotten was her nephew, her sister’s son—Vasant. Even now, after she’d fed the cows, when she sat in the corner of her mud hut, in the light or shadow cast by her gourd-pumpkin creepers, his face would appear before her.

Vasant’s mother had died only two months after his birth, and thirty-five years ago, his father had, with a pale, wan face, brought this news to Bibbo and then stood quietly before her with Vasant . . . she couldn’t even dream of the things that happened after. If a leper hides his illness from others, he himself cannot look at it either—the life after was her diseased limb.

Vasant’s father began to live there. He was younger than Bibbo. Bibbo, lonely Bibbo, thought: what’s the harm? But then he left, and so, one day, only she and Vasant remained. Vasant’s father was a part of the majority who lives only for dissatisfaction, who cannot bear the weight of contentment. She nurtured Vasant on the blood of her heart, but he flew away too as soon as he grew wings and once again she was all alone. She would hear of him sometimes. Ten years ago he came one day, wearing the black uniform of the railways, and invited her to his wedding. Then she heard he’d left that job due to some indictment and set up business somewhere. Bibbo used to say that she was not at all interested in such matters. If Vasant were crowned king today she would not be pleased, and if he were hanged to death tomorrow she would not be sad. And she protested vehemently when her neighbours tried for some financial assistance from her nephew for her, the old aunt who made a living selling milk.

It was 2 p.m. Both of Bibbo’s buckets were now empty. After putting the remaining milk to simmer, she was about to go for a bath when a middle-aged man holding a five-year-old boy by the finger walked into her courtyard.

‘Can’t help you now, 2 p.m. . . .’ Bibbo said, swift and terse.

‘No, aunty . . .’

Bibbo went up to him, stared at him and then dreamily said, ‘Vasant!’ Then fell silent again.

‘Aunty,’ he said, ‘I have no one in this world except you. My son is now motherless. You raised me—please raise him too. I will bear all the expense.’

‘I’ve had enough, enough,’ the old woman said shakily.

Bibbo was surprised to see that Vasant was growing old and that his son was just like Vasant and his father . . .

‘Go away, Vasant,’ she said, her voice hard. ‘I can’t do anything.’ But Vasant kept pleading. He opened a small trunk and began to pull out presents for his aunt.

The old woman, pruning the unripened bottle gourds, kept asking Vasant to leave but there was unrest in her soul. She began to feel as if she were young again, as if Vasant’s father, in the silence of the night, was kissing her a little in a dream . . . She drew Vasant close to her and began to sob.

Ho . . . but she would not look at Vasant’s son. It was certain she would never keep him. Vasant felt hopeless. But, the next morning,when he went to wake Mannu,Bibbo snatched him away and held the little boy close. Vasant departed, leaving behind Mannu and a ten-rupee note.

Bibbo’s milk wasn’t selling any more. Three cows were sold off, one after another. Only Mannu’s calf remained. Even the bottle-gourd and pumpkin customers were disappointed. Mannu— sallow, dull, lazy Mannu—was growing pink, quick and naughty. Disinterested Bibbo slowly let herself be entirely wrapped up in the boy and her household.

Vasant would send a money-order of five rupees each month, but within a year Bibbo had to mortgage her house. It had become necessary—to fulfil all of Mannu’s wishes. Bibbo once again began to keep pace with time. People began to gossip and criticize her in the neighbourhood again. Mannu had re-established her bond with society.

Then, one evening, Vasant suddenly returned. A short, wheatish woman was with him. She touched Bibbo’s feet and said, ‘Aunty, give Mannu to me, I will forever be grateful.’

‘Yes,’ said Vasant, with a despairing expression, ‘it’s better than jeopardizing someone’s life . . . If I had known, why would I have got married?’

‘Okay,’ said Bibbo, ‘take him.’

Mannu was playing in the house next door. The old woman clambered onto the wall with trembling limbs and called him.

He dashed home hopping and skipping. The new mother hugged him to her bosom. The child couldn’t understand a thing— he ran to the old aunt.

‘Go, go away.’ Bibbo admonished.

The poor child was unable to understand the meaning of this admonishment. He began to cry.

Vasant stood there, astonished. Bibbo grabbed Mannu’s hand, washed his face, and, taking down his shoes from the courtyard ledge, helped him put them on.

Vasant’s wife smiled, ‘Aunt, won’t you let us stay for a day? What’s the hurry?’ But Bibbo had as if entered a different realm. One where no sound of this world could reach. In the blink of an eye, she packed up all Mannu’s things, things given in love and play. She told Mannu he was going on a trip with his new mother.

Mannu ran to his father. Bibbo brought over a few notes: ‘Keep your money.’

Vasant was in a dilemma but his wife resolved it. She picked up the notes. ‘Aunt, we don’t have enough right now but will send more as soon as we return. We will never be able to repay our debt to you.’

Mannu wasn’t happy for long at his parents’. He fell ill twice a month. His new mother wasn’t too happy to have him either. Finally, after lying awake all night and despite his wife’s protests, Vasant once more left with Mannu for his aunt’s.

When he reached, he saw a crowd before her frail door. The neighbours surrounded Vasant as soon as they saw him: ‘She’s your aunt. Her door’s been shut for five days. We’re worried!’

Breaking the door open, they saw the old woman lying on the earth, clutching a photograph. as if by dying, she was providing proof of being human.

Except for Vasant, no one knew that the picture was his father’s. and even he couldn’t understand why it was there.

(Excerpted with permission from Wolves and Other Stories, a collection of short stories by the Hindi writer Bhuwaneshwar, translated by Saudamini Deo; published by Seagull Books; 2021)

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